How The Sickle Slashed The Left

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The CPI(M)’s thirst for industrialisation has alienated rural Bengal and Muslims, leaving cracks in the regime’s wall of fear

Aditya NigamAditya NigamAcademic

THE PERFORMANCE of the Left in the recent elections has taken most outside West Bengal by surprise. The equally bad performance of the CPI(M) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala is not that surprising as the state has often seen the Left go out of power. In West Bengal, however, the Left was an invincible fortress that was built upon a virtually unshakeable base of the state’s rural poor whose lot had been fundamentally transformed under the rule of the Left Front (LF). That is why, for 32 years the LF-CPI(M) government has managed to weather all the political storms that blew over national and international skies. The socialist world disappeared from the world’s map, Congress dominance at the Centre became a thing of the past, governments came and went with BJP and Hindutva playing a key role in New Delhi, but the power in Kolkata remained unshaken.

Judgement day A tense mood in Nandigram the day before the Left lost in the 2008 panchayat elections
Judgement day A tense mood in Nandigram the day before the Left lost in the 2008 panchayat elections
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

No wonder its defeat in that state has shaken everybody — from the Left’s supporters to its newfound admirers who had begun to believe that the CPI(M) under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was really on the way to kick-start the ‘second Bengal Renaissance’, putting it on the high road to hypermodernity. Remember the Nano and the great promise it held for the future of West Bengal? And the new chemical hub that was to be built in Medinipur — in an obscure place called Nandigram?

Precisely because the LF’s position was so unassailable, the explanation being trotted out by the West Bengal leadership seems so vacuous: the argument that they lost because the central leadership withdrew support from the UPA government and chased the chimera of the Third Front. This farce enacted under the leadership of Prakash Karat, the General Secretary of the party, is important to understand the delusional world that this central leadership inhabits. But it certainly does not explain the performance of the LF and CPI(M) in the state. The fact is that state leadership has been desperately trying to evade its own responsibility towards issues of governance by putting all the blame on the central leadership.

THE ISSUES that lie at the heart of the current anger against the LF, and the CPI(M) in particular, are of two kinds. The first concerns the question of land acquisition for Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s industrialisation programme. The question here — at least as far as the elections are concerned — is not really whether there should be industrialisation in the state. The question very simply is whose land is it and what will they get in return? The incredulous party leadership, in the face of stiff peasant resistance, kept repeating that they will get jobs, apart from some paltry onetime compensation. Pose the question to all the property owners, party leaders and their middles class supporters: would they be happy to trade their property for a farcical ‘compensation’ and a job — from which they can be kicked out whenever the employer wishes to get rid of them? If not, why should the peasant agree? Because industrialisation is historical progress, we are told. The peasants did not buy that line of argument and came out in open revolt. But, can we really think of the peasant as somebody who can become an industrialist, or be given a permanent stake in the industry that comes up on his land? A regular share in its profits, for instance? Or, is that against the laws of historical progress?

Can we really consider the peasant as a profit-sharing industrialist? Or is that against historical progress?

Such a proposal was made by some economists and intellectuals who tried to find a via media. At some point, in relation to Singur, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya did announce that he was contemplating such a plan. But by then it was too late. By the time the Singur land was fenced off under police violence, the bonds of trust between the rural peasants and the leaders in Kolkata had broken down. Never again would they trust the word of the babus in Alimuddin Street.

I remember being asked early this year by a television journalist whether the fact that Tata had to wind up and go would not go against the Trinamool Congress and the Opposition. Wouldn’t they be held responsible for stalling the state’s development? He really believed, in accordance with what the Germans call the zeitgeist — the spirit of the times — that ‘development’ is what the people really need. I was at pains to explain that, in fact, this would add to the opposition’s strength and what we are seeing in the media being represented as the voice of the ‘people of West Bengal’ is but the desire of a small, globally integrated middle class. ‘Development’ and ‘industrialisation’ have become the buzzwords of the CPI(M)’s discourse in the state and have earned it a new social base among these sections. But they have alienated it from its traditional base.

Singur and Nandigram ruptured the Left’s machinery of control. Years of pent up frustration came to the fore

This is only a part of the story. What Singur and Nandigram did was not simply to raise the question of land. They broke a whole network of daily, unspoken fear that stalked rural West Bengal. The Left fortress of West Bengal was also built upon a formidable electoral machinery that went down to the deepest recesses of rural society. Over the years, this electoral machine became one of the world’s most innovative surveillance apparatuses. No other party anywhere in the country can claim what the CPI(M) in West Bengal can: detailed information down to practically each household in the village, of the political inclinations of their members, their voting behaviour and so on. This information fed into the new machinery of total control that came into being when the panchayats were reactivated in the early to mid-1980s. The conjunction of the party-electoral machinery and the network of panchayats manned by the party cadre produced a new apparatus where everybody would keep an eye on everybody else. Nothing could happen without the party’s knowledge or permission. The party even took on the role of informal adjudicator in disputes among villagers. A new kind of power was born. This was what Singur and Nandigram ruptured. The wall of fear came crumbling down. Protests escalated from ration shops to the tea gardens of North Bengal. Years of pent-up frustration now came to the fore.

Somewhere in between this also lies the story of the state’s Muslim community. Those who were dispossessed in Nandigram were largely Muslims and dalits. Already, the Sachar Committee report had demonstrated that despite the rhetoric of secularism, the state of Muslims in West Bengal was among the worst in the country. And who would forget Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s campaign against the madarsas during the NDA regime as supposed dens of terrorism! A deep alienation was already building up. The process was catalysed by a whole series of events, including Nandigram. In these circumstances, the state leadership’s statements sound positively dishonest.

However, recent reports from Kolkata say that the state leadership is thinking of circulating a questionnaire to district committees that will have to be filled up after ‘thorough discussion with the ranks’. A welcome development, but it may be a little too late. For the Rubicon has already been crossed, as far as the ordinary people of Bengal are concerned.

aditya@kafila.org

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